Not long into Erik Nelson’s tightly-packed and disturbing documentary “A Gray State,” discussing a December 2015 murder-suicide in a Minneapolis suburb that left filmmaker David Crowley, his wife Komel, and their five-year-old daughter Raniya dead, local journalist Cory Zurowski noted that it was “catnip for conspiracy theorists.” Why? Because for several years, Crowley had been trying to make a feature film called “Gray State” that looked like something cooked up by a roomful of Alex Jones fans after a three-day Red Bull and Googling marathon. The idea that Crowley, an Army veteran and habitué of alt-right sites would murder his family and write “Allahu Akbar” in blood on the walls of their home before turning the gun on himself, just wouldn’t compute.
For better or worse, after throwing out that tidbit, “A Gray State” steers mostly clear of the Infowars-related online bilge pipe. We see a couple self-proclaimed “citizen investigators” dismiss the notion that the crime scene was what it appeared to be, darkly hinting at outside forces that wanted Crowley silenced. Instead, the movie sketches out the story of how Crowley transitioned from eager soldier to disaffected veteran, driven indie filmmaker and entrepreneur, and finally broken-down paranoiac.
The arc isn’t an uncommon one, and it’s vividly followed here, given the wealth of video footage and friends that the surprisingly outgoing Crowley left behind. He was far from the first American kid who went from playing guns in the woods to going off to war, realizing that the real thing is nothing like “Black Hawk Down,” and returning home convinced there is something rotten in the system itself. After a deployment in Iraq, he came home and married Komel just six weeks after meeting her. The Army then stop-lossed Crowley, sending him this time to Afghanistan. That tour of duty appears to have further darkened an already cynical worldview. Unlike most veterans, though, on his return to America, Crowley found solace for what was likely undiagnosed PTSD in the negative reassurance of online conspiracy theories. In an ostensibly positive move, he enrolled in film school. The result of that, however, was the gestation of the hydra-headed monster that would consume the rest of his life: “Gray State.”
Based on the footage Nelson includes—mostly a spooky “concept trailer” that Crowley created to raise funds for the making of the film itself—Crowley’s idea for “Gray State” was a slurry of militia fantasies tailor-made for the post-“Matrix” conspiracy community. Between the trailer and the interviews Crowley shot of him talking about the movie (looking and sounding sharp and magnetic, like some charismatic rebel squad leader), he appeared to be just throwing everything into the pot: New World Order, FEMA camps, a mysterious entity implanting RFID chips into children (leaving a triangular scar probably meant to evoke the Trilateral Commission), scrappy white Americans leading an insurgency against the shadowy aggressors, and plenty of shootouts. It’s like an alt-right palimpsest. The “Turner Diaries” shorn of overt racism. Orwell for the “Call of Duty” generation. Free-floating paranoia skimming across the dark ocean of the Internet.
It’s no wonder that once Crowley posted the trailer online, his social media presence went viral. He was big among the people who rant about “globalism,” believe the federal government is stockpiling bullets and body bags for a crackdown, and protest at conferences of the Bilderberg Group; as we see Crowley happily doing at one point. He became a kind of star in the world of Alex Jones-style paranoid performance art; though Crowley looks to have been mostly sincere, we do hear him cynically noting about his fans that “every time you say, ‘New World Order,’ they get out their wallets.”
But after a Hollywood fundraising trip left Crowley without the $30 million he wanted for a budget, and no way to get it as an unknown filmmaker living in Apple Valley, “Gray State” kept morphing and mutating and remaining frustratingly unfinished. A perfectionist who friends and family describe as a “control freak,” Crowley didn’t seem able to either finish his movie in some altered fashion or move on to something else. The wall-sized storyboard that he shows off at one point, explaining its various arcs and knotted references to Joseph Campbell, appears impressive at first but ultimately imprisoning.
Excepting a strangely off-key final scene, A Gray State is a compelling, highly dramatic piece of documentary filmmaking. Nelson, a longtime collaborator of Werner Herzog’s (credited as executive producer) knits together a stingingly emotional portrait of an outwardly confident and well-rounded man who was actually descending into madness. The footage of Komel is particularly tragic, given that she was the one financially and emotionally supporting Crowley through his artistic misadventures, only to possibly fall prey to the same delusional fever that overtook him near the end.
What Nelson doesn’t spend enough time on, though, is looking at the context of the shadowy beliefs that Crowley summoned as a means of establishing agency in a world that had stopped making sense to him. It wasn’t conspiracy theories that killed him and his family. But Crowley’s obsessive feeding of an online culture that celebrated his darkest fears couldn’t have helped his illness. They helped make the shadows seem real. [B]